Brian Ashton: Intimidating but inspirational, it's the perfect place to start
Tackling the Issues: Can Wales find a way to play unpredictably, like their celebrated teams of yesteryear, or will we see more of the round-the-corner, lateral stuff?
Friday 04 February 2011
Most of us could do without the barmy scheduling – what use is a Friday night kick-off to anyone, apart from the broadcasters? – but it's impossible not to be captivated by the start of another Six Nations jamboree, especially when the opening match sees Wales entertaining (for want of a better word) their old enemy England at the Millennium Stadium, which to my mind is the best venue in world rugby: intimidating, hostile, exciting and inspirational. The place is uniquely atmospheric, a great sporting theatre smack bang in the middle of a great sporting city.
It produces the kind of environment that should give a real boost to Welsh ambitions, but home advantage has not been too helpful to the Red Dragons recently. They are in a trough of bad results and, while this game will unite the nation behind Warren Gatland's team, there must be many on that side of the bridge who fear another defeat and are already unnerved by their contemplation of the unthinkable.
Despite Warren's usual pre-match mutterings, I wonder whether he's convinced that his players have the belief to do the necessary when the going gets tough. This fixture, of all fixtures, brings with it myriad distractions off and on the field. Will the more excitable Welshmen be diverted? It is not the only question confronting them tonight. Can they find a way of playing the unpredictable rugby that defined their celebrated teams of yesteryear, or will we be "treated" to more of the round-the-corner, lateral stuff that leaves us so dissatisfied?
How will the reconstructed front row stack up? If Wales have problems compensating for the loss of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, I can see England keeping the ball on the field and ensuring that scrums, not line-outs, are the main focus of the set-piece argument. Finally, will James Hook have any serious influence on proceedings now he has been taken out of the midfield, where so many important decisions are made, and repositioned at full-back?
As England have also lost important forwards to injury, their mobility and athleticism have taken a knock, and it will be instructive to see how this changes the contest. I suspect that given the nature of their defeat by an exceptionally aggressive South Africa last time out, they are determined to be more physical in this game – not that I expect the Welsh pack to be as formidable as the second-string Springbok unit proved at Twickenham in November.
England must now be looking not only to win the physical contest with Wales at close quarters, but to show increased maturity at half-back. There were times against the South Africans when key decision-makers seemed to be turning to the next page in the "playbook" in search of solutions, only to find the script offered no answers. The physicality tonight may not be as extreme, but the hostility generated by the crowd will create the circumstances in which Ben Youngs and Toby Flood must show they can operate with what I call appropriate positivity.
Scotland, meanwhile, travel to Paris, where they will encounter a French side still reeling from the effects of their extraordinary implosion against the Wallabies a little over two months ago. Having appeared to have shrugged off the restrictive practices imposed on them under Bernard Laporte, what happened in the meeting with Australia left many people scratching their heads. Their teamsheet suggests they are capable of playing some sublime rugby, but it is by no means clear whether they will take on the Scots with all guns blazing, or with water pistols squirting.
The Scots will go in with a big, hungry pack equipped for a face-to-face scrap and they'll be keen to extend their recent run of impressive results. They will need to combine their traditional helter-skelter approach with a strong element of control, continue to develop their forward game both at the set piece and away from it, and then hope their midfield trio can bring some intelligent creativity to the mix.
As for the Irish, they go to Italy without a recognised international front row and have lost two of Europe's better loose forwards, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip, into the bargain. It is too early for the Azzurri to derive full value from the presence of two teams in the Magners League, but they are rarely pushovers in Rome, where Ireland have blown hot and cold.
Three contrasting contests, each affected by injury and therefore difficult to call. If you press me, I'll go for England, France and Ireland. I could, however, be wrong on all three counts.
Cardboard army proved no match for battle-ready England
I vividly remember England's first visit to the Millennium Stadium, in 2001. I was part of the coaching team under Clive Woodward and we went to the venue on the eve of the game to inspect the facilities and have a brief run-out on the pitch. On our way to the dressing rooms, we came across a series of life-size cardboard cut-outs of the Welsh players placed at intervals along the corridor. Quite why they were there I have no idea, but if they were intended as intimidation, the plan backfired spectacularly.
We used it as a motivating tool and while the noise at kick-off time was so loud that it was impossible to hear anyone standing more than 10 metres away, the towering cauldron of Welsh tribalism served to inspire what was a tough, battle-hardened England team. We ran in five tries, despite winning only 40 per cent possession. A portent for this evening, perhaps?
In association with Sharp's Doom Bar. To tackle your own rugby issues, and win Doom Bar goodies, join the debate at independent.co.uk/rugby
Win an exclusive Doom Bar t-shirt!
Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a sharp Sharp's t-shirt?
Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning a particularly snazzy Doom Bar t-shirt. Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?
Then, in February, after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that coveted shirt. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights.
Entrants must be aged 18 or over. Terms and conditions apply.
If you have any problems posting your comments, you can also email your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org
Harry Potter actor suffered 'severe flu-like symptoms' on a flight from London to Orlando
First full-length look is finally here
World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'
Brooklyn Beckham poses in Arsenal training kit following rumours of signing for the Gunners
Manchester United transfer news and rumours: David De Gea could leave for FREE; £38m for Marquinhos; £37m bid for Mats Hummels;
Transfer news LIVE: Manchester United to make £37m Mats Hummels bid; Inter plan Yaya Toure move; Shola Ameobi joins Crystal Palace
Australian Open 2015: Novak Djokovic vs Stan Wawrinka match preview
Danny Ings to Liverpool: The Reds attempt to steal a march on rivals in race to sign Burnley striker
- 2 The awkward moment Sarah Palin raised $25,000 for Hillary Clinton's election campaign
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 Baldness could soon be treated using stem cells, scientists hope
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures